I admit I was very skeptical when a client told me that he had “cured” his yellow Labrador of cancer using a medicinal cannabis extract. “Right,” I thought, “likely another overzealous marijuana advocate.”
I had heard reports of cannabis being used as a treatment for glaucoma and assorted other maladies in people, but I figured it was just a ruse to promote legalization of marijuana. A few years ago, however, I became a bit more open minded. I saw a piece on television about a renowned neurosurgeon and chief medical correspondent for CNN, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who reported a case of a young girl who had severe seizures that were effectively controlled by a special strain of marijuana. Dr. Gupta explained that there are certain strains of cannabis that have low levels of THC (the chemical that gets people ”high”), but high levels of another cannabinoid called CBD. This turned out to be a big deal, because CBD now appears to have many other potential medical benefits and can be extracted from hemp. Hemp is a variety of cannabis that has been grown worldwide for centuries, primarily for fiber. Products and supplements made from hemp are completely legal here in Oregon and in all other states too. More on that later.
In the last year or so, I’ve seen a dramatic upswing in the number of clients who ask me about the use of cannabis (marijuana or hemp) products for their pets. It’s understandable, being that Oregon is one of a few states that have legalized marijuana for medical, and more recently, recreational use. Many people have heard of cannabis being used for a variety of medical conditions in humans, and wonder if animals could also benefit. I’ve had several clients admit that they have been taken it upon themselves to “medicate” their pets. This can be very dangerous. Dogs and cats are especially sensitive to the effects of THC, and can be easily overdosed. Because marijuana is still listed as a “Schedule 1 drug” (no medical value) by the FDA, veterinarians in the U.S. are not legally allowed to prescribe marijuana medicinally for their patients. It’s actually technically illegal for vets to even discuss the use of marijuana with their clients. No wonder most veterinarians are wary.
It’s been known for many years that animals have many essential bodily functions that are maintained by system involving natural cannabinoids—a class of plant chemicals that also happen to be found in cannabis. These include brain function, immune function and inflammation, among others. Some researchers have suggested that wide variety of health problems (including cancer) in animals as well as humans might involve a poorly functioning endocannabinoid system. It makes sense that a plant rich in chemicals that interact with the body’s natural health systems could potentially be very useful as medicine. This theory seems to be supported by recent clinical studies. It also appears that CBDsand other plant compounds present in cannabis have potential medicinal benefits completely separate from THC.
There are now quite a few cannabis products for veterinary use on the market. They are hemp-based, high in CBDs, and are completely legal for veterinarians to recommend or prescribe because they contain no significant amounts of THC. Studies have shown CBD to be extremely safe, with no adverse effects even in high doses, so I have felt comfortable with these products in my practice. I have found them especially useful for anxiety and pain relief in my patients. Recently I was able to significantly reduce the amount of a narcotic pain drug a dog was being given (with adverse side effects) by substituting a cannabis product. Even though the dog suffers from an incurable cancer, he is now more active and alert, is less painful and has a better appetite. Another case involved a canine patient with “old dog” dementia that was anxious and frequently keeping his guardians awake at night. The dog seems more “present” and calmer, and everybody’s sleeping well now, thankfully.
Certainly much research still needs to be done on the medicinal use of cannabis. While it’s important to separate hype from facts, it seems clear that there are many potential medical benefits that should be investigated further. As a veterinary herbalist, I am always interested in exploring the incredibly wide variety of plant medicines available for our animal companions. In my mind, cannabis is just another—but certainly unique—plant we can use.
Dr Judkins is the owner of Animalkind Holistic Veterinary Clinic in Historic Jacksonville